The Nader for President Fiasco




This article originally appeared in Z Magazine, November 1996.

During the spring and summer of 1996, I spent considerable time following and supporting the Green Party’s effort to run Ralph Nader for President. I got involved in all this extremely reluctantly, as a person who has long insisted that the Greens should in principle abstain from national electoral politics. However, reports from around the country of all the new energy that was coming into the Greens as a result of this effort soon compelled me to put my reservations aside and at least find out for myself. I spent countless hours on the phone, and several on the streets, helping get Nader on the Vermont presidential ballot, and also maintaining communication between our local effort and others across the country. I have tried to play a skeptical but supportive role on the national council of the Greens/Green Party USA., of which I have been a member for some years. In retrospect, I feel that all this was an exceedingly poor use of my limited time and activist energies during the past several months. I’d like to explain why.

Like most other progressive presidential campaigns in recent years, the Nader for President drive was supposed to be primarily about movement building. In a time of widespread public skepticism toward national politics and the two-party system, Nader would be a voice for a genuine independent alternative. As a lifelong crusader against the corruptions of corporate power, he would articulate a message that would otherwise be silenced during the campaign season. He would breathe new life into local Green organizing, and perhaps even spark a much broader grassroots democracy movement, such as Greens and progressives in the U.S. have long envisioned.

But, once again, activists discovered the inherent contradiction between presidential politics and grassroots movement-building. Like other progressive presidential efforts of recent decades—from Barry Commoner’s “Citizens Party” effort in 1980, to Jesse Jackson’s abortive campaigns in 1984 and 1988—the Nader effort demostrated that national electoral politics is largely incompatible with a democratic, participatory model of political organizing. Running for president is about money, power and personal ambition, and very little else carries much weight once the logic of conforming to election rules, playing the media and contending for votes begins to take hold. While Nader himself mostly stayed out of all the organizational maneuvering that came to dominate this campaign, a thorougly unaccountable cast of aspiring political operators acting in his name have used this effort to try to reshape Green politics in the U.S. into a demoralizing mold of politics-as-usual. The Green vision of a cooperative relationship between electoral and non-electoral activism, brought together to promote values of ecology, justice, peace and democracy, is in danger of being discarded in favor of a bureaucratic approach largely shaped by state ballot access rules and the politics of expediency.

Presidential Politics and the Greens

Involvement in presidential politics has always been controversial among Green activists in the U.S. It arose at the very first decision-making national gathering of representatives of Green locals in 1989 in Eugene, Oregon when John Rensenbrink of the Maine Green Party proposed a long-range strategy of Green involvement in the presidential campaigns of 1992 and 1996. After a brief discussion, it was clear that there was very little support among those assembled for such an effort. During the next several years, Greens across the country affirmed their commitment to a locally-based strategy merging a social movement agenda with electoral efforts at the local level.

While many Greens felt that the development of a political party at the state, and eventually the national levels, should be the main priority of the Greens, most groups around the country pursued a far more eclectic approach. They combined local efforts around issues ranging from nuclear waste to Indian treaty rights to urban development, with projects aimed at realizing a Greener future through community gardens, co-ops and a wide diversity of educational projects. Scores of Greens ran for office at the local and county levels from coast to coast, and by 1992, the Greens had elected more people to local office than any independent political movement since the 1930s. Also in 1992, the Greens made their first, and thus far only, attempt at a coordinated national action plan, encompassing campaigns around alternative energy sources, rebuilding inner cities and supporting Native activists’ plans to recast commemorations of the Columbus quincentennial.

Despite considerable success at the local level, and an evolving vision of confederated grassroots efforts, some continued to see the development of a national political party as the true underlying mission of the movement. In 1990, Greens began running for state office in the hope of gaining ballot status for state Green parties. The first success was in Alaska, where gubernatorial candidate Jim Sykes polled 3 percent of the statewide vote, bringing the Greens there to full ballot status. In California, the establishment of a state Green Party remained controversial. Numerous Green locals were attracting dedicated members, but they often kept aloof from wider activist circles, particularly in the larger cities. Impatient with the continuing reservations of left activists and New Age spiritualists alike, several key organizers of the statewide network of Green locals departed to form the Green Party of California and, in 1992, registered over 90,000 Green voters to certify their own ballot line. The visibility of the Greens in California increased markedly with this move; however the diverse statewide network soon evaporated as the focus increasingly shifted toward the new state party leadership. Still, with dwindling organizational resources at the national level, the quest for state ballot access soon became the de-facto national strategy of the Greens.

The national organization of the Greens/Green Party U.S.A. was slow to bring the new state parties into its formal national structure, and state parties often resisted joining the national network. The national organization’s focus continued to be aiding the formation of local Green chapters and giving local and regional groups a participatory voice in national decision-making. Those seeking to move the Greens toward a more traditional political party structure ironically condemned the 1992 action plan and other non-electoral activities as unreasonable national impositions on the priorities of local groups. For those increasingly committed to an electorally-centered strategy, the national organization’s social movement orientation and radically visionary program were seen as obstacles to the development of a more mainstream political strategy. John Rensenbrink and others split from the national Green organization to form a small but vocal tendency known as the Green Politics Network (GPN) to promote a more wholly electorally-centered approach.

For some time, the GPN has tried to position itself as a catalytic force to unite third party activists under the leadership of the new state Green Parties. In a pair of “Third Parties ’96” conferences leading up to the 1996 elections, they gathered representatives from a wide spectrum of third party efforts—from the New Party and Socialists to Libertarians and members of Perot’s Reform Party. “Transcending left, right and center: building the new mainstream,” was their slogan; carrying a rather watered-down version of Green politics into the presidential arena was their strategy, in conspicuous contrast with the emerging Independent Progressive Politics Network which sought to unite grassroots organizers and third party activists around an agenda of far more sweeping demands. An editorial in the respected Vermont-based political journal Toward Freedom described “Third Parties ’96” as “pretentious and deceptive,” particularly the so-called “Common Ground Declaration,” a platform that emerged from an entirely synthetic exercise in consensus involving less than fifty participants.

The presidential fever struck first in California. At the 1995 national Green Gathering in New Mexico, long-time California Greens Greg Jan and Mike Feinstein proposed a nationwide drive to register state Green Parties in 1996. Such an effort, combined with a Green presidential run would, according to Jan, tap voter discontent with politics-as-usual and spread Green ideas nationwide. Subsequent drafts revealed a further motive: if a Green presidential candidate could capture 5 percent of the popular vote nationwide, the Greens would be entitled to some $4 million in federal matching funds for a presidential run in the year 2000. This odd mixture of hopeful idealism and ambitious opportunism largely set the tone for the 1996 Nader campaign.

By the fall of 1995, advocates of a Green presidential race were playing an increasingly vocal role, both in internal discussions and in efforts to shape national media coverage of the Greens. In California, Greens determined to have a presidential candidate on their own 1996 state ballot petitioned a variety of nationally prominent progressive figures to see if any of them would agree to run in the California primary as a Green candidate. Ralph Nader was the only one to respond, and an impressive list of over 40 activists statewide subsequently signed a letter demostrating broad support for a Nader candidacy. In late November of 1995, the Green Party of California announced that Ralph Nader had agreed to be their candidate for president.

It was clear from the beginning that this was not to be a traditional presidential campaign. “I intend to stand with others around the country as a catalyst for the creation of a new model of electoral politics, not to run any campaign,” Nader declared, announcing that he would neither seek nor accept campaign contributions. In a number of subsequent statements and interviews, Nader articulated his goals for the campaign: it would encourage and energize new activists, pressure the Clinton administration around environmental and regulatory issues, and promote a plan Nader first drafted for the 1992 New Hampshire primary to expand public oversight of utilities, the media and the federal electoral process.

Nader and the Greens

The Nader campaign immediately sparked controversy within the Greens. In several states, most notably Maine and Virginia, the presidential campaign quickly became a major focus for Green activists who wished to extend the Nader effort beyond California. In other states, Greens were far more hesitant to allow a presidential campaign to dominate their agenda, particularly one in which the grassroots apparently had very little say. The difficulties were political, as well as structural. Many women, people of color and gay activists within the Greens, who for years had been assured that their concerns were central to the Green agenda, felt thoroughly marginalized by a straight white male presidential candidate who openly refused to embrace their issues. In California, for example, Nader would not taking a stand against the anti-affirmative action “California Civil Rights Initiative,” despite grassroots Green efforts to help defeat the initiative. Queried by a hostile reporter about his position on gay issues highlighted in both the national and California Green platforms, Nader said he would not become involved in “gonadal politics;” when Phil Donahue asked Nader in February about the politics of abortion, he dismissed the entire issue as “too much private stuff.” Nader refused membership in the Greens and disavowed the movement’s democratically drafted platforms; he even refused an interview with the national newsletter of the Greens, the quarterly tabloid Green Politics. Greens committed in principle to a politics of local initiative and a decentralized radical confederalism felt their efforts were being compromised by the growing association of the Greens with presidential politics.

The situation became further polarized when Linda Martin of the Green Politics Network set up a separate Nader campaign clearinghouse in Washington D.C. in direct competition with the national clearinghouse of the Greens. The so-called “Draft Nader Clearinghouse” tried to dominate media coverage of the campaign and of the Green movement overall, and offered legal advice designed to support their activities. They claimed that Nader’s pledge to limit campaign contributions—and thereby escape the scrutiny of the Federal Election Commission—could only be respected if each state were to establish a campaign committee, entirely separate from the Greens, that communicated with Nader only through the D.C. clearinghouse. Subsequent research by the Green Party of New York state proved this claim to be spurious and thoroughly manipulative. Guy Chichester of the New Hampshire Green Party described the D.C. clearinghouse as a classic case in the history of the Greens of “dissidents on the electoral[ist] right wing creating parallel organizations and trying to divide the Greens.”

In state after state, the integrity of Green efforts at the local level was compromised by the Nader campaign’s single-minded determination to be on as many state ballots as possible. Wherever the Greens hesitated to jump on the Nader bandwagon, ambitious individuals were sought out and encouraged to break with their local group to launch a petition drive of their own. Greens in Ohio were told that organizers linked to the California effort would bring a petition drive to their state if the Ohio Greens declined to do so. When Greens in Texas decided against a statewide Nader drive, Greens across the country received repeated “emergency” fundraising appeals over the Internet to send campaign organizers there over the objections of the Texan Greens. In North Carolina, onthe other hand, a ballot drive was first organized outside of the existing Green network, but activists soon agreed to cooperate on a petition for a write-in candidacy for Nader.

In the northeast, the resolution was even more acrimonious. Richard Alcorn, a member of the steering committee of the newly formed Massachusetts Green Party, was asked to leave the group after repeated violations of group decisions. The result was two conflicting petition drives, one in the Boston area and another launched by Alcorn in the Western part of the state under a different party name. Each group obtained about half of the 10,000 signatures needed to get Nader on the ballot. Having failed in Massachusetts, Alcorn went to New Hampshire, where he represented himself as a Green Party organizer with financial support from the California Nader campaign. Long time New Hampshire Greens offered to cooperate if there were to be a unified effort, but threatened to take legal action if Alcorn tried to establish a competing Green organization. Alcorn never showed up for a planned campaign rally and was never heard from again in New Hampshire.

Alcorn next appeared in Vermont, where he again refused to cooperate with Green activists who had already launched a decentralized grassroots petition drive in the northern part of the state. A long-standing Vermont Greens organization had gone dormant during the early nineties, but the new “Vermonters for Nader” effort was beginning to attract many people who had not previously been involved in politics. Nader supporters in Vermont were committed to organizing from the ground up, in the spirit of Nader’s “people’s campaign.” But this did not satisfy the ambitious Richard Alcorn. He launched a competing petition drive in the southern part of the state, under the name of a spurious “Green Coalition,” with a different set of electors and a different Vice Presidential candidate than the northern Vermont-based grassroots effort. (Queried about his approach over electronic mail, Alcorn, who declined to be interviewed by telephone, cited unspecified “flaws” in the original petition and wrote, “our objective was to ensure Mr. Nader got on the Vermont ballot as a vehicle to encourage media coverage of his issues on both a statewide and nationwide basis.” Alcorn described his Green Coalition somewhat obtusely as “a group of folks who want to bring together Green Party activists, Labor, people of color and the poor for shared political objectives.”)

Less than two weeks before the state deadline, rumors began to circulate that Alcorn had already obtained the needed 1000 validated signatures. These rumors clearly stalled the momentum of petition drives in Burlington and other communities. When a young activist from Vermonters for Nader went to the Secretary of State with some 900 signatures validated by various town clerks throughout the state (an additional 150 or so were to have been mailed directly to the Secretary of State and 50 more still required the needed validation by town clerks), he was told that Nader was already on the ballot and his signatures were not needed.

A further source of acrimony was the platform that Nader held in his hand when he accepted the Greens’ nomination for president at a Los Angeles gathering this past August. The platform was the product of an initiative by New Mexico Green fundraiser Steve Schmidt. In February, Schmidt’s group announced to Greens across the country that they were convening a committee to approve a new national platform for the Nader campaign. The New Mexico group would draft the platform, and Green representatives from around the country would be offered an opportunity to discuss it over the Internet’s World Wide Web. The effort was widely rejected as insufficiently democratic, even by core Nader campaign organizers; barely a handful of responses ever appeared on the New Mexico group’s Web page. The resulting platform was uninspiring at best, an amalgam of lowest-common-denominator proposals on issues that in many cases had never even been discussed by the Greens. It was a far cry from the comprehensive national program the Greens have been developing through an open, participatory process since 1988 (see, for example, Z, November 1990). Still, when Greens arrived in L.A. for their national gathering and nominating convention, the New Mexico platform was presented as a fait accompli.

Prospects for the Future

In late September, a front page headline in the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed: “Nader’s Green Party Run Wilting. He won’t campaign; slips in the polls.” The Chronicle reported that Nader’s polling in California had slipped from ten to around three percent as the election approached. Criticisms of the Nader effort from more mainstream circles were mostly linked to the unconventional nature of the campaign: the lack of fundraising, traditional campaign appearances, etc. But many Greens believe that Nader’s vision of a grassroots campaign might have been realized if it had been carried out in a genuinely grassroots-democratic manner. In New York and a few other states, Nader efforts were closely linked to local candidacies and alliance-building efforts at many different levels. New York Greens also brought their campaign for Nader into statewide actions against the dismantling of welfare and a late October demonstration on Wall Street. But overall, fewer local and statewide Green candidates will appear on the November ballot than in any election this decade, due at least in part to the all-consuming demands of Nader’s presidential campaign.

Many Greens have come to believe that the relentless internal logic of presidential politics has inevitably turned a hopeful and idealistic effort to spark a new democracy movement in the United States into yet another cynical political game. By mid-summer, Nader campaign organizers became increasingly strident about their underlyling motive: they wished to divide the existing national network of Green activists that has been evolving, with many fits and starts, since 1984, and replace it with a streamlined new “association” of state Green Parties. The Greens would “shed their radical wing,” in the words of one California Green Party activist, and Green Parties would be defined exclusively by their adherence to state and federal ballot rules. Thus, Ralph Nader’s reputation as a crusader for democracy and public accountability is being squandered by a crew of aspiring politicians whose main goal is apparently to recast the Greens in the confining mold of politics-as-usual, and perhaps someday control their own cache of federal matching funds.

What are the lessons of this effort? Election years are always a dismal time for genuine grassroots politics, and the lure of electoral politics has become stronger as other alternatives have become more difficult to sustain. Both seasoned activists and those relatively new to politics seem equally resigned to a future of diminishing possibilities; many in California and elsewhere felt the Greens would soon evaporate without the added stimulus of a presidential run. “The vast majority of new California Green Party participants seem to fully accept a liberal model for ‘progressive’ politics,” explains Sonoma County Green Lloyd Strecker,” and as far as most of them are concerned, the Nader effort is a shining example of grassroots organizing. To them, it is the ‘radical’ component which is wasting valuable time with all this pickiness about ‘process,’ and the Draft Nader people who have taken the bull by the horns.” (The “Draft Nader people” will almost surely conclude that they have failed by being too open.)

“The root problem of the Nader campaign stems from Greens’ difficulties with leadership,” according to Greta Gaard, a founder of the Minnesota Green Party and author of the forthcoming book Ecofeminism and the Greens. “Thus far, some Greens have mistaken charisma, initiative, and the ability to ‘think big’ for leadership. Surely, these are the necessary characteristics, and they are transformed into Green leadership when they are placed in service of the Green community through the process of participatory, democratic decision-making.”

To still others in the Greens, the Nader campaign reflects all the traditional failings of alternative presidential candidacies. Petition-gathering, fundraising and seeking to conform with state election rules precludes imaginative grassroots organizing and inevitably sabotages long-standing commitments to grassroots democracy. Despite Nader’s clear message about the evils of corporate power, presidential campaigns only serve to reinforce the widespread and thoroughly naive hope that one brave individual on a proverbial “white horse” can somehow make the system right. The real losers, sadly, are all of the thousands of idealistic people who enthusiastically carried and signed Nader petitions thinking they were helping to usher in a real alternative in 1996. Hopefully they will discover the lesson of the old adage, popularized in the 1980s by Audre Lorde, that “you can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.”